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The Third Reich

by Roberto Bolaño

Read by: Simon Vance

Macmillan Audio | 2011 | Running time: 10 hours | 8 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Roberto Bolaño was a poet novelist, or rather a novelist poet, who has received great posthumous praise and recognition. The Third Reich is one of his early attempts at a novel found among his papers after his death. Being unfamiliar with his later and award winning novels, or any of his work, frankly, I’m pleased to say that Bolaño shows great skill at weaving story and attracting the listener into the worlds he creates.

The Third Reich is an intriguing account of Udo Berger and his girlfriend, Ingeborg’s, first holiday together. Udo is the German champion of Third Reich, a World War II strategy game. They are vacationing in the Costa Brava region of Spain on the Mediterranean, a childhood vacation spot for Udo’s family. However, he is there to work on Third Reich strategies as well as to write a game-changing Third Reich article even as he spends this intimate time with Ingeborg.

The story is told through the writings in Udo’s journal, a tool that he is using to improve his writing skills. The first person point of view allows the listener/reader to get to know Udo and even empathize with him as the story goes on. We feel the struggle he goes through: wanting to work on his game and spend time with his girlfriend, while failing to do either with much success.

When Udo and Ingeborg start hanging around with another young German couple and some of the locals, the vacation slowly slips from Udo. Moreover, when the other German man disappears, Udo finds himself alone in Spain waiting for the body to show up. With the tourist season ending, the atmosphere in the town changes, growing darker, almost menacing, with the coming rainy season.

Without Ingeborg around, Udo engages the mysterious paddleboat vendor, El Quemado, in a game of Third Reich. As the game goes on, he refuses to return to Germany until he has defeated El Quemado, and as the world around them starts to mimic the game they play, Udo becomes paranoid, feeling that the stakes of the game have been raised.

Roberto Bolaño engages the listener with an incredibly personal account of his character’s experiences. I surrendered to Bolaño’s authority and knowledge and found the stages of Udo’s journey fascinating. Simon Vance delivers a great reading performance, but, as is common in audio books, some of the dialogue runs together in the narration. It is understandable enough to line out though.

My only critique is that, for me, the climax of the story fell short of the powerful buildup. That statement is meant to compliment the story as much as express my disappointment. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing The Third Reich, my first exposure to the late Roberto Bolaño, and wouldn’t hesitate to dive into more of his work.

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